Bright Lights, Little City

The newly restored Palace Theatre puts some glamour back in Georgetown

Bright Lights, Little City
Photo By John Anderson

It's Friday night, and the audience is trickling in, mostly families with young daughters eager to see tonight's feature, Grease, to which they will sing along every word unerringly (their mothers will, too). The girl working the ticket booth, which is small and opens onto the street, is much too young to know firsthand the historical value of the seat she holds; she's used to the big, impersonal ticket windows at multiplexes where employees are lined up like bank tellers. Inside, another young girl works the concession stand with her mom, volunteers for Serateens, a community youth group. Last week, it was residents of Sun City, the nearby retirement community, who manned the lobby and could still remember what this felt like 50 years ago.

There's a slight delay with the popcorn -- it's still popping -- but that means it's fresh and comes in an old-timey, red-and-white striped cardboard box ... which shouldn't matter, but does nonetheless. Inside the theatre, two young girls have claimed front row center, in order to be as close to Danny and Sandy and as far from Mom and Dad as possible. There are 306 seats here, and, as I've been told repeatedly, there is not a bad seat in the house. The lights dim about 15 minutes late, but nobody seems to mind; the place thrives on a sense of unhurriedness. Well, the two preteens in the front row do look a little antsy, anxious to get on with the show. What they don't realize is that the show is already on: From the moment that marquee, neon and spangly, comes into sight, the show has begun.

Welcome to the Palace Theatre.

Nearly 80 years have passed since Georgetown's first and only movie palace was built. In 1925, it was a brick storefront building with a pressed metal ceiling, dark interior woodwork, and glass French doors that invited you into the lobby; the motion picture industry was still a silent one at that time, so a piano player at the Palace provided the musical accompaniment. Two years later, Warner Bros.' The Jazz Singer made history as the first ever "talkie," and the Palace made the conversion to sound along with every other moviehouse in America. By 1936, it was time for a new look, one that matched the glamour of talkies, and so a new Palace was born.

This was the Palace that Austin firm Gregory Free and Associates intended to re-create when it took on the restoration of the theatre in the late Nineties. Although the Palace continued to operate in the decades after its art deco remodeling in the Thirties, it had fallen into disrepair by the early Nineties. In 1991, the theatre's owners put the Palace up for sale; concerned that the theatre might be demolished, a number of Georgetown citizens banded together to buy the theatre. A nonprofit organization was formed, start-up funds raised, and the project began.

Harold Steadman, a volunteer and sometime-board member, worked the concession stand with his wife on a sleepy Thursday night several weeks ago. He recalls the condition the theatre was in when they first relocated to Sun City.

The original Palace Theatre (pre-1936 art deco redesign)<br>
<i>Photo courtesy of Palace Theatre</i>
The original Palace Theatre (pre-1936 art deco redesign)
Photo courtesy of Palace Theatre

"In 1996, this old building looked terrible. It was a mess. [It was] built in 1925, which means it's almost as old as I am," Steadman grins, "and I was in a hell of a lot better shape than it was. It was just rundown. ... The restrooms were terrible, [the building was] dirty, needed painting, the carpet was soiled and torn, the seats were in bad shape, the roof leaked, you name it."

A retired Southwestern Bell Yellow Page advertising employee, Steadman was an active recruiter for funds. "All I've ever done my whole life is sell," he says. "[I'm] retired now, but I'm still selling." When he was raising money, he would frequently call on lifelong Georgetown residents or Southwestern University graduates. "[They] remembered coming here and dating way back when they were kids and seeing movies. That's one thing that really helped us in restoring the facility -- people remembered it with a lot of fondness."

Eventually, the nonprofit raised enough funds to begin the restoration, and that's when restoration specialist Gregory Free and his firm, which deals in historic preservation, were brought in. The firm's projects have included the restoration of the Elgin City Hall (built in 1906) and the new McDermott Learning Center at the Ladybird Johnson Wildlife Center, which is constructed from an 1880s barn originally situated on Guadalupe. Debbie Charbonneau, who has served on the theatre's board since 1998 and is currently board president, felt secure in handing the reins over to Gregory Free and Associates.

"We had a working committee that would work with Greg and the contractors, and then they would report back monthly. ... Basically we handed it over to Greg because he is so well known in his field. He's fantastic."

Although the theatre had more than a decade of history to its name prior to the 1936 remodeling, Free notes that the redesign to art deco in the Thirties is more significant because it marked an "architecturally stylistic statement."

"It was a major shift from that quiet, small-town building to all of a sudden this, 'helloooooo, Hollywood,' glamorous, urbane, deco look," he says. However, there was more to the Palace, and other movie palaces in tiny towns, than met the eye.

"This was as glamorous as a small town could afford. There are actual art deco little moviehouses all around America, some of them still existing that look like sophisticated [buildings] but that are built out of wood siding. So you go to little towns around the country and see, well, it's oxymoronic to say country deco, because deco is a very urbane and sophisticated style, but [it was] country deco. Instead of chrome, stainless steel, silver leaf, precious stones, mahoganies, inlays, fountains, glass, they were obtaining the same thing with wood. The moldings are wooden, painted with silver paint. ... One of the hand rails [at the Palace] was a wooden hand rail that somebody at some point had painted gold. So it looked like a brass, a bronze rail from Radio City Music Hall."

The Palace Theatre, circa 1959<br>
<i>Photo courtesy of Palace Theatre</i>
The Palace Theatre, circa 1959
Photo courtesy of Palace Theatre

Unfailingly true to the definition of restoration, Free and his team set about remaking the Palace using the same materials used during its 1936 remodeling.

"Instead of trying to make an art deco [theatre] how we wish it looked, it was restored the way it really was. So we used silver paint, not even silver leaf, but silver paint and gold paint, and it does show a little bit of the grain of the wood, like it did. ... For us, that's just really charming. It's the sophistication that that small world could understand and appreciate. There are people who might look at the theatre and say, 'Well, this is just silver paint,' and we say proudly, 'Yes it is.'"

In order to achieve the most exacting, authentic restoration of the building, Free relied on photos, surviving records, and the testimonials of former Palace employees still residing in Georgetown. But certain alterations from the original were necessary -- some to conform to new building codes, some to make the Palace work in a new light. The nonprofit envisioned the new Palace as not just a moviehouse, but as a multipurpose community theatre, functional for films, theatrical and musical performances, lectures, even beauty pageants. The problem was, the Palace had only ever been used as a movie theatre -- this in a time prior to stadium seating -- meaning the floor was flat, and patrons looked up at the screen. A flat floor wouldn't fly with the Palace's new interdisciplinarian mission. As was, there wasn't a good seat in the house. Therefore, the floor would have to be torn out and tilted, but the immutable measurements of the building made that a tricky prospect.

"This building is 40 by 112, and it doesn't get any bigger than that," explains Free, "because you've got a building on either side of you, a state highway and a sidewalk in the front, and an alley that somebody else owns behind you. So we could only work within those parameters."

Free presented the dilemma to the board of members. There was discussion of eliminating the balcony, but the board vetoed that proposal. The balcony had been there since the beginning, and it has a legacy both painful and affectionate. When the building first opened in 1925, there was a separate door leading to the balcony; in a time that was fiercely segregated, the Palace's balcony was reserved for "colored" patrons. No records exist that nail down the date the Palace desegregated, but Free does point out that after the post-1936 redesign, everyone came in through the same door. And later, after desegregation, the balcony took on happier connotations: It was where kids and teens stole away to goof off or fumble toward first kisses. So the board opted to preserve the balcony, arguing that it was both an important historical artifact as well as "an important thing to bequeath to the next generations."

But the problem remained: how to make every seat a good seat.

"What we had to do, since we could not go out," Free explains, "we had to go up, and we had to go down. The building was dug out, the floor was demolished, and the building went down eight feet into the ground so that we could build risers so you could get good sightlines. We also had to lower the stage."

Molly Alexander preps the projector.
Molly Alexander preps the projector. (Photo By John Anderson)

There were other snags. Despite expensive geotechnical research, they were surprised to begin construction and discover ground water under the building -- a one-inch deep, 12-foot wide "little river" flowing through layers of underground rock. "At one point, you'd go in the building, and it just went straight down," says Free. "You saw mud, you saw tractors driving around in the middle of the building, there was no walled back, there was a deep pit, and you had to go from the theatre floor across a little bridge to get to the alley. The contractor described it best as 'building a ship in a bottle.' It all had to be done in very close quarters."

That was the building-down part. The building-up part entailed adding an extra 40 feet on top of the building in order to accommodate a fly loft -- a necessity if the building was going to function as a venue for live theatre with the requisite backstage. Further readjustments included new stairs and an expanding of the lobby, both to meet handicap-accessible requirements, and elimination of the middle aisle -- the seats are now served by two aisles on the outside. But the changes to the building are far outweighed by the original elements now brought back or preserved. There is again a red velvet stage curtain, and the ticket booth has been restored to its original configuration, divided by a curtain in the back. The double red-leather doors remain, as do the chrome wall vault (where managers used to store the day's receipts in cash boxes) and 10 gorgeous vertical wall sconces made of sheet metal that were unearthed from storage and refurbished by Star Antique in Wimberley. The original wooden marquee had rotted, so Free and Associates rebuilt it and brought it up to code. The carpet isn't a reproduction -- that would have been too costly -- but it is an art deco facsimile that recalls the original "razzmatazzy" carpet of bygone.

All told, the restoration is phenomenal and achieved, under budget, at just under $1 million. "We were dedicated to not making the Palace a monument to ourselves," says Free. "It's a monument to the people of Georgetown of that period. It's charming and simple and no punches are pulled to make it look like something it never was."

The Palace reopened in October 2001 and has functioned as a venue for the arts for the past year, hosting live theatre, classical music, and regular functions like the once-monthly Sunday gospel jamborees. The Palace Theatre Guild puts on seven productions each season (Harold Steadman played Lazar Wolf in the theatre's inaugural production, Fiddler on the Roof), and a theatre group for high schoolers has started up, as well. But in the last few months, the theatre has opened up its doors to something new, or something old, rather. It has reintroduced movies to the Palace.

In October, the board brought on Molly Alexander, an independent consultant and longtime activist in the community, to shape the new film program. The first task was to train projectionists -- there are five volunteers, all female -- to run the new system, which was purchased from Austin's Arbor Theatre when it closed last year. One of the five rotating projectionists, Alexander photographed each step of the laborious process of loading the projector in order to get the hang of it. Then Alexander and the board begin to shape a series of films, which was tougher than you'd think. The theatre invites patrons to fill out surveys with suggestions of future movies to show; a quick scan reveals such disparate recommendations as Charlie Chaplin silents, "less sex and violence," and, curiously, Viking movies. Those scattershot suggestions indicate just how difficult it is to program films that will consistently attract large audiences: How exactly do you appeal to, well, everybody? So far, the features have alternated between second-run, family friendly films like Spider-Man and classic revivals like Grease and Breakfast at Tiffany's. Alexander is especially eager to try out arthouse and foreign films. She'll find out this week if foreign films will find an audience in Georgetown: This weekend the Palace will screen Amélie, the Oscar-winning charmer about a lovelorn girl in Montmartre.

The films so far have met with mixed success, which hasn't discouraged the nonprofit yet. They're practical about how long it's going to take for movies at the Palace to catch on. The plan, Alexander says, was to "look at a variety of movies and genres to see what would and wouldn't work. And we believe now we have kind of a formula for breaking even. We're hoping that formula will prove true in December. The idea is by [January, February, and March], we begin to bring in a small profit."

Georgetown might seem like a long way to drive to see a second-run movie still playing at the dollar theatre or readily available on video. But a good deal of the appeal to the Palace isn't so much the movies -- although they are thoughtfully chosen and admirably family-oriented -- but rather the moviegoing experience, something that is somewhat lost on generations reared by the strip-mall freneticism of multiplexes. It's maybe silly to fix a personality on a place, but something happens when you hook a left onto Austin Avenue and drive into Georgetown's historic district. Everything slows down -- just a little bit -- and then there's that marquee, neon and spangly, lighting up Downtown. It sends a little thrill down the spine every time. Or maybe it's the popcorn vendor, a 1940s-era replica, or the restored ticket booth where, Greg Free laughs, you can imagine "a Mabel or Madge or Mavis would sell the tickets." Board president Debbie Charbonneau knows they still have a long way to go for the nonprofit to settle in, but she remembers the first time she felt like the Palace had truly arrived.

"It's still a work in progress, but I think for me, [that moment came] when we were completely done, and we were all exhausted, and we walked in here before [opening day]. Just to look at it was unreal, to think, oh, what this has become, the things we saved. From there, it's an everyday thing. I love walking in here." end story

To get to the Palace Theatre, take N. I-35 to Georgetown, exit 251. Take a right onto University Avenue and a left on Austin Avenue. The Palace Theatre is located at 810 S. Austin Ave. All movies cost $5. For more information, call 512/869-7469.

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Palace Theatre, art deco, Harold Steadman, Molly Alexander, Gregory Free, Gregory Free and Associates, McDermott Learning Center, Elgin City Hall, Georgetown, Debbie Charbonneau

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